Thought Leadership

Lessons from the NFL’s Crisis Playbook

We now can say with certainty that we know what was needed to get the National Football League (NFL) to end its impasse with the National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA).

It wasn’t the increasing frustration of the fans, who took to Twitter and sports talk radio to voice their extreme displeasure, and 70,000 of whom reportedly flooded league-office phones with angry calls. Can you imagine the look on Commissioner Roger Goodell’s face upon being told by the automated voicemail attendant, “You have 70,000 new messages. Message one …”

It also wasn’t the poor decision-making by the replacement referees, which resulted in several prominent head coaches reaching into their wallets to pay NFL-mandated fines for yelling at, bumping, grabbing or otherwise generally abusing the replacement referees.

And it wasn’t the unpenalized hits and career-threatening injuries, like the one that happened to Oakland Raiders wide-receiver Darrius Heward-Bey, who was knocked unconscious and taken off the field on a cart, or to Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who was searching for a severed piece of his ear after a particularly vicious (and illegal) hit by a Denver Broncos linebacker.

No, the tipping point came in Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers, one of the NFL’s most beloved franchises, and the Seattle Seahawks, in which victory was literally and figuratively snatched from the Packers hands by a ham-handed call by a replacement official on the last play of the game.

More than anything else, this event shook the league’s credibility to its foundational core by calling into question the integrity of the competition. Swiftly and suddenly, the NFL’s reputation was pushed to the brink of insolvency by the repeated failings of under-qualified replacement referees (who, to be fair, were put in an untenable position from the beginning). Only then, did the league concede.

One can’t help but wonder why on earth the NFL would roll the dice in the hopes that something like this would never happen. Why stake the credibility and reputation of its brand — the vaunted “NFL Shield” Commissioner Goodell usually guards so judiciously — seemingly just to save a few bucks?

Here are five big faux pas the NFL made:

Hypocrisy. Commissioner Goodell talks a good game about “protecting the shield” and maintaining the image and integrity of the league. Typically, he says it in relation to players staying out of trouble, so as not to hurt the perception of their team and the league. Players who run afoul of the league’s conduct policies are quickly fined and/or suspended. But when it comes to the role of the Commissioner in impugning the league’s reputation, well go ahead and insert any number of clichés about hypocrisy here.

Arrogance. The NFL’s first response to using replacement officials was indifference. There were no apologies issued or responsibility taken; no visible concern for the NFL’s most important audience — the fans — without whom there is no NFL; no acknowledgment that the coaches, players and even some politicians were outraged; and no hint of compromise, even though the NFL, a $9 billion enterprise, looked petty for drawing a line in the sand over a $3 million request by the part-time referees, which amounts to 0.03 percent of the NFL’s revenues. Just trust us, the league was saying.

Unfortunately, most companies that face similar crises don’t have the market dominance, consumer goodwill or vested advertisers, sponsors and communities that the NFL enjoys, so they react much more humbly when crises occur.

Lack of Ownership. The NFL failed to take ownership of the impasse, whereas most good communicators will accept and acknowledge their company’s role in creating a crisis.  The NFL “made a proposal that includes substantial increases in compensation for all game officials,” the league said. In other words, “it’s now up to them.”

The NFL placed other blame on the NFLRA, as well. It noted the union’s efforts to “denigrate the replacements” and to disrupt the NFL’s “substantial investments” in their training. But then again, they never really thought they had a problem, did they? Which leads me to my next point.

Underestimating the Problem’s Severity. Commissioner Goodell provided an unrealistically rosy assessment of the job being done by the replacement officials. Rather than conceding that the presence of replacement officials increased the chances that an egregious mistake would occur, the league referred to the replacement officials as “experienced and high-quality” and talked of “proper enforcement of the playing rules,” “efficient management of our games” and enforcement of “rules relating to player safety.”

To this day, Commissioner Goodell won’t even acknowledge that the Packers/Seahawks game forced the NFL back to the bargaining table. During a conference call yesterday, he insisted that the timing of the deal was not a reaction to the outcry over the Packers/Seahawks game. The two sides had been in “intensive negotiations” over the last two weeks, he said, though he sheepishly admitted when pressed that game “may have pushed the parties further along.”

Good communicators will be accurate, transparent and forthcoming in crisis situations and update the media and public regularly as things deteriorate or improve.

Losing Control of the Story. Nowhere in the reams of coverage of this situation did I see a coherent argument for why the NFL was locking out the regular officials. Commissioner Goodell said little publicly, seemingly content to rearrange the chairs in his luxury suite as the credibility of the league sank around him. Players, coaches and fans filled the vacuum with a narrative of incompetent officials, injury risks, mismanaged games and outcome-changing mistakes

Good communicators get ahead of the story by keeping the media regularly informed and all interested parties engaged as to what’s being done to manage the situation.

Describing Commissioner Goodell’s leadership during the lockout of the regular referees as an #epicfail may not be strong enough, though give him credit for realizing that he no longer had a choice, and for actually ending the impasse by putting in place a tentative agreement between the league and the regular officials. It’s hard to know the extent to which Goodell was following the advice of his public relations counsel, but I’d like to think that having a competent communicator at the table would have helped him to avoid at least some of these missteps.

It’s doubtful that pro football fans will be quick to forgive the NFL or forget the replacement referees, but at least they can now return to yelling at the regular game officials for their incompetence and bad calls.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

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